"How many are my foes!" Absalom's Revolt and the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim

In the early part of the tenth century B.C., a significant poem was penned by the second king of Israel, Dawid (דָּוִד or David in English). It was written during a time of revolution and upheaval for King David. Intriguingly, many of us actually possess English copies of this three-thousand-year-old poem today.


Absalom caught in the terebinth tree during the Battle of the Forest of Ephraim
Death of Absalom (Corrado Giaquinto, 1762)

Introduction


Now commonly entitled "Psalm 3", this poem is included in the book of Tehillim (or, in English, Psalms) in the Tanakh or the Bible. Nevertheless, although this Psalm is known to many, the surrounding events are rarely discussed.


The historical record in First Samuel[1] tells us that David was a former shepherd who had been selected by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to rule the land. David was a courageous young man as well as a prolific and skilled poet.

Around 1000 B.C., David was crowned the new king of the United Kingdom of Israel, following the death of his predecessor, King Saul. Initially, his reign was highly successful; however, in later years, David was plagued with trouble.


Many of the Psalms that David wrote bear witness to the difficulties that he was experiencing.


Absalom's Revolution

Thirty-five years after his ascension to the throne, David learnt of a large-scale rebellion being led by his son, Prince Absalom.[2] Absalom rallied his supporters and marched on the royal palace. David's followers barely warned him in time for him to flee his palace and avoid probable death.


Having missed his opportunity to murder his elderly father, Absalom again made plans to hunt David down. Nevertheless, David again discovered Absalom's intentions and moved with his entourage and a small army to the far side of the Jordan River. It was here that Psalm 3 was written.


Absalom is caught in a tree and his mule rides out from under him
Death of Absalom, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

The Battle of the Wood of Ephraim


A great battle was fought in Gilead, near an important city (the exact city is unknown to historians). The exact sizes of David's and Absalom's armies are impossible to determine.

Although Absalom initially considered raising a small crack force of twelve thousand troops, he was advised to mobilise all the troops in Israel.[3] On the other hand, David had a force large enough to be split into three divisions and led by three generals: Joab, Abishai and Ittai. Unfortunately, this is all we know from the book of Samuel.


David's mobile army seems to have used the dense forests to their advantage against the masses of rebel troops. Ultimately, the royal forces routed Absalom's army, and the greater part of twenty-thousand men was killed.[4]


According to the book of Samuel, more soldiers died due to the rough terrain than were killed by the opposing side. The casualties included Absalom whose long hair (ironically, his pride and joy) became caught in a terebinth tree as he rode past on his mule.


The mule didn't stop, and Absalom was literally left hanging by his hair. He was killed by one of David's three generals, Joab, against the king's wishes.


Leaf from the Morgan Picture Bible, "Scenes from the Life of Absalom", c. 1250
Leaf from the Morgan Picture Bible, "Scenes from the Life of Absalom", c. 1250

In Psalm 3, David betrays both anxieties about his appalling circumstances and confidence in God. He speaks of God providing rest and protection and calls on God to save him from his enemies - namely, Absalom.


Psalm 3 seems to clearly display David's feelings throughout the entire revolution. Interestingly, though, David clearly still deeply loved his son and was absolutely crushed on hearing that he had been killed in the battle.


Psalm 3


Here is the English translation of Psalm 3 (as well as a modern rendition put to music):


Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain.
I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.
Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.
From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.

Researched and Written By

Cody Mitchell


Footnotes


[1] William MacDonald, in his well-researched Believer's Bible Commentary, makes the following comments about the book(s) of First and Second Samuel as a historical source:


"While Jewish tradition makes Samuel the author of the book that is now divided into 1 and 2 Samuel, this authorship can only apply to the events during his own lifetime (1:1-25:1). Much of the material in these books takes place after the prophet's demise.

It is possible that one of the young prophets who studied under Samuel wrote the book, incorporating writings of his teacher. Another possibility is that Abiathar, a priest who would be accustomed to keeping close records, compiled the book. He was closely associated with David's career and even spent time in exile with him.

The date of the Books of Samuel is impossible to pinpoint. The early part may date from about 1000 B.C. The fact that no reference is made to the captivity of Israel (722 B.C.) certainly demands a date before that event. Some believe that references to "Israel" and "Judah" demand a date after 931 B.C., when the monarchy split into these two parts. Such terms could easily have been used before the political split, however, somewhat as in American history the terms "Yankees" and "Southrons" were used before the secession of 1861."


[2] Ironically, Absalom's name means 'father of peace' (cf. BibleHub, https://biblehub.com/topical/a/absalom.htm, accessed 12 November 2021).


[3] Presumably a considerable quantity. Psalm 3 speaks of "tens of thousands" assailing him "on every side", but it is difficult to know if this is alluding to his situation with Absalom or if it is merely poetic language.


[4] Twenty thousand is the figure given for both armies, although the sources suggest that the royal losses were far lighter than those of the rebels.

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